SIFF 2021 Review: Chuck Connelly: Into the Light

Year: 2021

Runtime: 74 minutes

Director: Benjamin Schwartz

By Joan Amenn

If you want to make a documentary, maybe your first choice of subject wouldn’t be an artist who even his closest associates describe as “a lousy person.” Chuck Connelly doesn’t make a good first impression as he rants at the director that he is not a “monkey dancing for the camera.” At this point, one has to ask oneself if they even want to spend their time viewing the rest of the film if this is what they have gotten themselves into. “Chuck Connelly: Into the Light” (2020) has a rough start but is surprisingly uplifting as the audience sees the artist evolve beyond the emotional and physical limits with which he has imprisoned himself for years.

It is something of a modern miracle that “Chuck Connelly: Into the Light” was made at all since the subject’s previous experience with documentaries did not go well and he is still a tad bitter about it. We can only be grateful to the persistence, patience and kindness of Director Benjamin Schwartz in taking the time to gain Connelly’s trust. Compounding the difficulties with interviewing Connelly is the fact that the man is painfully agoraphobic and would not leave his home.

The artist was a rising star in the late 1970’s into the 80’s but alcoholism and a self-destructive nature took its toll. He recounts how Martin Scorsese took an interest in his work and used one of his paintings in a film called, “New York Stories”(1989). This led to Connelly being interviewed where he said some regrettable things about the director and film and well, it turned out not to be the career boost it could have been. As a matter of fact, Connelly fled the New York art scene and became something of a recluse in his native Pennsylvania.

However, his prolific ability to turn out painting after painting for years led to every room in his home to be overrun with stacks of his canvases. The fact that many of these works have not been seen by anyone besides Connelly and his cat is staggering. This is where the director manages to first make a dent in Connelly’s protective emotional armor. He suggests an outdoor showing of the artist’s work, even if it is just in the man’s own backyard. Schwartz really does an excellent job of tight camera work to give the sense of claustrophobia and anxiety that Connelly suffers from. This is gradually reduced but it definitely is a struggle for the artist to overcome.

It can’t be overstated what a joy it is to see Connelly working, and actually enjoying the process whether he is sharing it with another artist or is interacting with a passerby who stops to admire his latest painting in progress. The anger and fear in his demeanor just melt away leaving the audience to gasp at how quickly and beautifully he can capture an image on canvas. His paint encrusted hands, clothes, even his cellphone cover, all denote his obsession with his media of choice. “Chuck Connelly: Into the Light” is more than just a portrait of an artist. It is one man’s struggle to conquer his inner demons and rejoin the human race, even if it is on a small and limited scale. It’s a pleasure to see Connelly and his work return to the land of the living where a new audience for his paintings can appreciate his talent that was hidden for too long.

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